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Alex Stroup, editor

The Haunted Mansion

Newest Disney film takes its inspirations from the park ride

Wednesday, November 26, 2003
by Alex Stroup, editor
[Spoiler warning: If you do not wish to know anything about The Haunted Mansion, including its ties to the Disney theme park attraction, skip this review until you have seen the movie yourself.]

Three familiar ghosts. ©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Sometimes you have to watch a movie with two brains… try to look at it through two sets of eyes at the same time. With Disney's latest ride-turned-movie, that's just the position in which I find myself.

Foremost I'm here to tell you whether The Haunted Mansion is a good movie. But that isn't all that our MousePlanet readers want to know. They also want to know if it's a good movie for those who have been on the ride 83 times… since September. They want to know if it is a movie that is worthy of perhaps the greatest theme park attraction ever built (though, personally, I'd give that title to Pirates of the Caribbean).

To these questions, the answer is a resounding yes. Unlike this past summer's Pirates of the Caribbean, this movie uses the Disneyland attraction as more than just a launching point with a few references along the way. Every significant room, gag, and set piece from the Haunted Mansion makes an appearance in The Haunted Mansion. The staring busts, the breathing door, the changing paintings in the hallway, the Dapper Dans. Well, OK, the Dapper Dans are more like invaders from Main Street, but they are a pleasant surprise.

And with few exceptions, they have been seamlessly integrated into a story that flows like you were going on the ride itself. In reality, the story is pretty thin. Eddie Murphy and Marsha Thomason (TV's Las Vegas) play Jim and Sara Evers, owners of Evers and Evers Realty (where they “want you to be happy forevers and evers”). Sara gets a call asking her to come out to a mansion in rural Louisiana, alone, to discuss with “the master” representing it for sale.

She wants to decline as it would interfere with a family, but because Jim is your stereotypical overworking father figure, the whole family ends up stopping by.

Once they enter the house, the first person they meet is (their “ghost host”) Ramsley, played blandly—but wonderfully—by Terrence Stamp. Discussing the house over an unexpected dinner introduces most of the other characters: the house's Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) and the house staff (Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters). A big storm starts up and floods the river, requiring the Evers to stay the night.

Terrence Stamp looking pretty dead plays the butler Ramsley. ©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

And so the ride begins. The rest of the film is mostly moving from set piece to set piece, showcasing elements from the real ride. The family gets split up, of course, and to Eddie Murphy falls the honor of first meeting the bodiless gypsy, Madam Leota (Jennifer Tilly).

By this point, the viewer will fully realize that this is really going to be a “Disney” scary movie. There are occasional frights to make you jump; a brief scene with some zombies and spiders, but nothing really malicious or frightening. Again, just like the ride. In fact, everything is ultimately so benign that after hours of wandering the back passages of a dusty house, fighting zombies in a graveyard, and other adventures, everybody is still freshly showered without even a spot on Jim Evers' tie by the end of the movie.

So, just as you might expect from Disney, you get to be scared without being frightened.

Now, as to the minor issue of Eddie Murphy. Looking over his career you see the periodic highlight, but it is stunning to see such a long list of mediocrity, particularly in the comedies for which he should be known. But the last 5 to 8 years have been particularly bad. Except in his voice work (Mulan and Shrek), it has been since 1999's Bowfinger that he had an actual good performance. In recent years he has mostly stuck to family fare with very mixed results.

By itself, his performance in The Haunted Mansion continues recent history, as Murhpy never really does anything very funny and several lines fall completely flat. For once, though, he is in a family movie that does not rely on gross-out humor for laughs, and he is sufficiently restrained for his natural charm to show through.

Jennifer Tilly, well part of her, as Madam Leota. ©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

The only great failing are the computer effects in several points throughout the film. After the great work done on zombies for Pirates of the Caribbean, you'd think they could have reused that here rather than using flat-looking constructs that seemed to just barely be in the same world as the other actors. Most of the effects are fine, but every once in a while it looks like a television effects budget was in place.

The Haunted Mansion is going to be a great kids movie for a very long time, and I expect it will very successful in the home theater market where the kids can sit and watch it over and over. In the theaters, I'm not so sure. The crowd attending my screening was mostly there through a promotion with a local R&B station, not Radio Disney. While the response seemed positive, there wasn't the thrill of recognizing ride elements for many of them that I was experiencing. So in that regard, my attempt to view the movie through two sets of eyes was certainly not entirely successful.

Though it is nice to see a movie end without an obvious opening for a sequel, I'm sure they'll come up with something if the film does well enough. After all, we MousePlanet readers know what happens at the Haunted Mansion during the holidays, and it just might be time for Jim to meet Jack.


The Haunted Mansion is a Walt Disney Pictures release

Wide theatrical release: November 26, 2003

Directed by Robert Minkoff.
Screenplay by David Berenbaum

Rated PG for frightening images, thematic elements and language.

Running time: 99minutes

Alex's Rating: 7 out of 10


Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.


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